Headlines often seek to blurt out the theme of “earliest signs.” Two examples from 2011 at the time I was writing the section on Stone tools for 2.5 million years:
- A finding that pushes evidence for cooking back to 1.9 million years ago, “Cooking may be 1.9m years old, say scientists.” The scholarly article is “Phylogenetic rate shifts in feeding time during the evolution of Homo.”
- Finding more advanced stone tools, an Acheulean technology, made 1.76 million years ago, “Earliest Signs of Advanced Tools Found.” The scholarly report is “An earlier origin for the Acheulian.”
There are some reasons for caution. One of the co-authors on the cooking article is Richard Wrangham, whose work Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human is certainly interesting but seems monocausal and perhaps out-of-step with latest evidence on gathering and hunting (see the review by Frances Burton; also see a great round-up on cooking by Greg Downey at Neuroanthropology, “Food for thought: Cooking in human evolution” which includes a back-and-forth in the comments from Richard Wrangham).
With regard to the supposed Acheulean tools, see the critique by John Hawks, “Digging deeper into the earliest Acheulean.” Hawks comments bluntly: “This isn’t news.” It’s already been researched and reported. Also there is a “lack of any discussion at all about why the assemblage is Acheulean as opposed to, say, Developed Oldowan.”
All this reminds me of things Robert N. Proctor said in “Three Roots of Human Recency: Molecular Anthropology, the Refigured Acheulean, and the UNESCO Response to Auschwitz” a delightful article which I keep returning to for insight:
Scholars know that there is more glory in finding the “oldest evidence” for controlled fire (or smelting or cocoa use or whatever) than the “second-oldest” evidence. Discovering the “second-oldest” fire is something like being the second to discover the oldest fire, a distinction roughly comparable to that between discovery and confirmation in the reward economy of science. (Proctor 2003:226-227)
In the context of these recent “discoveries” and “firsts” Proctor’s article continues to be a useful grounding and analysis.